What is 3d printing/ Rapid Prototyping?

Updated: Aug 13, 2018

Prototyping or model making is one of the important steps to finalize a product design. It helps in conceptualization of a design. Before the start of full production a prototype is usually fabricated and tested. Manual prototyping by a skilled craftsman has been an age- old practice for many centuries. Second phase of prototyping started around mid-1970s, when a soft prototype modeled by 3D curves and surfaces could be stressed in virtual environment, simulated and tested with exact material and other properties. Third and the latest trend of prototyping, i.e., Rapid Prototyping (RP) by layer-by-layer material deposition, started during early 1980s with the enormous growth in Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies when almost unambiguous solid models with knitted information of edges and surfaces could define a product and also manufacture it by CNC machining. The historical development of RP and related technologies is presented in table 1.

Table 1: Historical development of Rapid Prototyping and related technologies (after Chua and Leong, 2000)


RP process belong to the generative (or additive) production processes unlike subtractive or forming processes such as lathing, milling, grinding or coining etc. in which form is shaped by material removal or plastic deformation. In all commercial RP processes, the part is fabricated by deposition of layers contoured in a (x-y) plane two dimensionally. The third dimension (z) results from single layers being stacked up on top of each other, but not as a continuous z-coordinate. Therefore, the prototypes are very exact on the x-y plane but have stair-stepping effect in z-direction. If model is deposited with very fine layers, i.e., smaller z-stepping, model looks like original. RP can be classified into two fundamental process steps namely generation of mathematical layer information and generation of physical layer model. Typical process chain of various RP systems is shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: RP process chain showing fundamental process steps

It can be seen from figure 1 that process starts with 3D modeling of the product and then STL file is exported by tessellating the geometric 3D model. In tessellation various surfaces of a CAD model are piecewise approximated by a series of triangles and co-ordinate of vertices of triangles and their surface normals are listed. These STL files are checked for defects like flip triangles, missing facets, overlapping facets, dangling edges or faces etc. and are repaired if found faulty. Defect free STL files are used as an input to various slicing softwares. At this stage choice of part deposition orientation is the most important factor as part building time, surface quality, amount of support structures, cost etc. are influenced. Once part deposition orientation is decided and slice thickness is selected, tessellated model is sliced and the generated data in standard data formats like SLC (stereolithography contour) or CLI (common layer interface) is stored. This information is used to move to step 2, i.e., generation of physical model. The software that operates RP systems generates laser-scanning paths (in processes like Stereolithography, Selective Laser Sintering etc.) or material deposition paths (in processes like Fused Deposition Modeling). This step is different for different processes and depends on the basic deposition principle used in RP machine. Information computed here is used to deposit the part layer-by-layer on RP system platform. The generalized data flow in RP is given in figure 2.

Figure 2: Generalized illustration of data flow in RP (after Gebhardt, 2003)

The final step in the process chain is the post-processing task. At this stage, generally some manual operations are necessary therefore skilled operator is required. In cleaning, excess elements adhered with the part or support structures are removed. Sometimes the surface of the model is finished by sanding, polishing or painting for better surface finish or aesthetic appearance. Prototype is then tested or verified and suggested engineering changes are once again incorporated during the solid modeling stage.


The professional literature in RP contains different ways of classifying RP processes. However, one representation based on German standard of production processes classifies RP processes according to state of aggregation of their original material and is given in figure 3.

Figure 3: Classification of RP processes (after Gebhardt, 2003)

Here, few important RP processes namely Stereolithography (SL), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) are described.

1.1. Stereolithography

In this process photosensitive liquid resin which forms a solid polymer when exposed to ultraviolet light is used as a fundamental concept. Due to the absorption and scattering of beam, the reaction only takes place near the surface and voxels of solid polymeric resin are formed. A SL machine consists of a build platform (substrate), which is mounted in a vat of resin and a UV Helium-Cadmium or Argon ion laser. The laser scans the first layer and platform is then lowered equal to one slice thickness and left for short time (dip-delay) so that liquid polymer settles to a flat and even surface and inhibit bubble formation. The new slice is then scanned. Schematic diagram of a typical Stereolithography apparatus is shown in figure 4.

In new SL systems, a blade spreads resin on the part as the blade traverses the vat. This ensures smoother surface and reduced recoating time. It also reduces trapped volumes which are sometimes formed due to excessive polymerization at the ends of the slices and an island of liquid resin having thickness more than slice thickness is formed (Pham and Demov, 2001). Once the complete part is deposited, it is removed from the vat and then excess resin is drained. It may take long time due to high viscosity of liquid resin. The green part is then post-cured in an UV oven after removing support structures.

Figure 4: Stereolithography (after Pham and Demov, 2001)

Overhangs or cantilever walls need support structures as a green layer has relatively low stability and strength. These overhangs etc. are supported if they exceed a certain size or angle, i.e., build orientation. The main functions of these structures are to support projecting parts and also to pull other parts down which due to shrinkage tends to curl up (Gebhardt, 2003). These support structures are generated during data processing and due to these data grows heavily specially with STL files, as cuboid shaped support element need information about at least twelve triangles. A solid support is very difficult to remove later and may damage the model.

Build strategies have been developed to increase build speed and to decrease amount of resin by depositing the parts with a higher proportion of hollow volume. These strategies are devised as these models are used for making cavities for precision castings. Here walls are designed hollow connected by rod-type bridging elements and skin is introduced that close the model at the top and the bottom. These models require openings to drain out uncured resin.

1.2. Selective Laser Sintering

In Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) process, fine polymeric powder like polystyrene, polycarbonate or polyamide etc. (20 to 100 micrometer diameter) is spread on the substrate using a roller. Before starting CO2 laser scanning for sintering of a slice the temperature of the entire bed is raised just below its melting point by infrared heating in order to minimize thermal distortion (curling) and facilitate fusion to the previous layer. The laser is modulated in such away that only those grains, which are in direct contact with the beam, are affected (Pham and Demov, 2001). Once laser scanning cures a slice, bed is lowered and powder feed chamber is raised so that a covering of powder can be spread evenly over the build area by counter rotating roller. In this process support structures are not required as the unsintered powder remains at the places of support structure. It is cleaned away and can be recycled once the model is complete. The schematic diagram of a typical SLS apparatus is given in figure 5.

Figure 5: Selective Laser Sintering System

1.3. Fused Deposition Modeling

In Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) process a movable (x-y movement) nozzle on to a substrate deposits thread of molten polymeric material. The build material is heated slightly above (approximately 0.5 C) its melting temperature so that it solidifies within a very short time (approximately 0.1 s) after extrusion and cold-welds to the previous layer as shown in figure 8. Various important factors need to be considered and are steady nozzle and material extrusion rates, addition of support structures for overhanging features and speed of the nozzle head, which affects the slice thickness. More recent FDM systems include two nozzles, one for part material and other for support material. The support material is relatively of poor quality and can be broken easily once the complete part is deposited and is removed from substrate. In more recent FDM technology, water-soluble support structure material is used. Support structure can be deposited with lesser density as compared to part density by providing air gaps between two consecutive roads.

Figure 6: Fused Deposition Modeling Process (after Pham and Demov, 2001)

1.4. Laminated Object Manufacturing

Typical system of Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) has been shown in figure 7. It can be seen form the figure that the slices are cut in required contour from roll of material by using a 25-50 watt CO2 laser beam. A new slice is bonded to previously deposited slice by using a hot roller, which activates a heat sensitive adhesive. Apart from the slice unwanted material is also hatched in rectangles to facilitate its later removal but remains in place during the build to act as supports. Once one slice is completed platform can be lowered and roll of material can be advanced by winding this excess onto a second roller until a fresh area of the sheet lies over the part. After completion of the part they are sealed with a urethane lacquer, silicone fluid or epoxy resin to prevent later distortion of the paper prototype through water absorption.

Figure 7: Laminated Object Manufacturing Process

In this process, materials that are relatively cheaper like paper, plastic roll etc. can be used. Parts of fiber-reinforced glass ceramics can be produced. Large models can be produced and the building speed is 5-10 times as compared to other RP processes. The limitation of the process included fabrication of hollow models with undercuts and reentrant features. Large amount of scrap is formed. There remains danger of fire hazards and drops of the molten materials formed during the cutting also need to be removed (Pham and Demov, 2001).


RP technology has potential to reduce time required from conception to market up to 10-50 percent (Chua and Leong, 2000) as shown in figure 8.

Figure 8: Result of introduction of RP in design cycle (after Chua and Leong, 2001)

It has abilities of enhancing and improving product development while at the same time reducing costs due to major breakthrough in manufacturing (Chua and Leong, 2000). Although poor surface finish, limited strength and accuracy are the limitations of RP models, it can deposit a part of any degree of complexity theoretically. Therefore, RP technologies are successfully used by various industries like aerospace, automotive, jewelry, coin making, tableware, saddle trees, biomedical etc. It is used to fabricate concept models, functional models, patterns for investment and vacuum casting, medical models and models for engineering analysis (Pham and Demov, 2001). Various typical applications of RP are summarized in figure 9.

Figure 9: Typical application areas of RP parts (after Chual and Leong, 2000)


This is an overview of RP technology in brief and emphasizes on their ability to shorten the product design and development process. Classification of RP processes and details of few important processes is given. The description of various stages of data preparation and model building has been presented.


Chua, C.K., Leong, K.F. (2000) Rapid Prototyping: Principles and Applications in Manufacturing, World Scientific.

Gebhardt, A., (2003) Rapid Prototyping, Hanser Gardner Publications, Inc., Cincinnati.

Pandey, P.M., Reddy N.V., Dhande, S.G. (2003a) Slicing Procedures in Layered Manufacturing: A Review, Rapid Prototyping Journal, 9(5), pp. 274-288.

Pandey, P.M., Reddy, N.V., Dhande, S.G. (2003b) Real Time Adaptive Slicing for Fused Deposition Modelling, International Journal of Machine Tools and Manufacture, 43(1), pp 61-71.

Pandey, P.M., Reddy, N.V., Dhande, S.G. (2004a) Part Deposition Orientation Studies in Layered Manufacturing, Proceeding of International Conference on Advanced Manufacturing Technology, pp. 907-912.

Pandey, P.M., Thrimurthullu, K., Reddy, N.V. (2004b) Optimal Part Deposition Orientation in FDM using Multi-Criteria GA, International Journal of Production Research, 42(19), pp. 4069-4089.

Pham, D.T., Dimov, S.S. (2001) Rapid Manufacturing, Springer-Verlag London Limited.

Singhal, S.K., Pandey, A.P., Pandey, P.M., Nagpal, A.K. (2005) Optimum Part Deposition Orientation in Stereolithography, Computer Aided Design and Applications, 2 (1-4).

Thrimurthullu, K., Pandey, P.M., Reddy, N.V. (2004) Part Deposition Orientation in Fused Deposition Modeling, International Journal of Machine Tools and Manufacture, 2004, 44, pp. 585-594.

Williams, R.E., Komaragiri., S.N., Melton, V.L., Bishu, R.R. (1996) Investigation of the Effect of Various Build Methods on the Performance of Rapid Prototyping (Stereolithography), Journal of Materials Processing Technology, 61, (1-2), pp. 173-178.


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